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A General Assembly of German Israelites (1893)

In the 1890s, anti-Semitism was on the rise in Europe. The Dreyfus Affair of the mid-1890s highlighted the discrimination and hatred faced by Jews in France. Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935), a Jewish Artillery Captain in the French General Staff, came under suspicion of treason in France in 1894. Despite insufficient evidence, Dreyfus was initially sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island (French Guiana). Significantly, the conviction was supported by the anti-Semitism of the politically influential Catholic Church and accompanied by anti-Semitic slogans in the French public. As a result of numerous protests against the sentence and several revisions of court procedures, Dreyfus was at last finally rehabilitated in 1906 and readmitted into the army. The Dreyfus Affair provided the impetus for the legal separation of religion and state in France, and is the foundation of the principle of laicism (secularism) still effective today.

After their formal emancipation in 1848, German Jews had successfully entered into various social, economic, and professional spheres. As the century drew to a close, however, the economic displacement resulting from industrialization combined with a period of economic depression to spark anti-Jewish hostility. The following editorial in Die Zeitung des Judenthums [Newspaper of Judaism] called for an assembly of German Jews to combat the growing anti-Semitism. This assembly, which first met in 1893, prefigured the founding of the Centralverein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens [Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith], the most important institution of Jewish political activism in Wilhelmine Germany.

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The history of the suffering of our tribe and our faith is age-old and always remains the same; the forms under which it manifests itself, however, change according to the general cultural conditions of the respective nations. One can say that every century gives birth to a different form of Jewish persecution [Judenhetze], and it truly requires an indestructible faith in the unconquerable power of humanity's capacity for moral development not to despair in the end. This faith has maintained us Israelites in the midst of the terrible storms that have befallen us over the course of the millennia, and this belief in the moral progress of the entire human race, this truly inalienable legacy of our tribe, will surely also help us overcome the misery of the difficult time in which we are living. It would be unworthy of our glorious – and, admittedly, tear-soaked – history to despair faint-heartedly. Israel's paths are heavy with tears: that is simply the way it is. But our consolation lies in the history of our development, in the certainty that we have already prevailed against forces very different from the motley rabble of modern Jew-baiters. For us, too, it has been written: "And the gates of Hell, that is, of evil, will not overcome you, Israel."

Of course, the sight that the present holds for us is, needless to say, a very painful one, and the insults to which our community of faith is exposed, especially at present in Germany, are so very hurtful – the more hurtful [they are], the more strongly developed our general sense of honor [grows], [as does] our awareness of belonging to the total culture of the age. From the days of Moses Mendelssohn and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing down to our time, German Israelites have shown a quest to participate to an ever greater extent in the development of German intellectual life. Like nowhere else in the world, this kind of mutually enriching interaction has taken place precisely in Germany. It is no coincidence that the rebirth of the Science of Judaism occurred in Germany. The critical method of the German mind landed in Jewish heads like an explosive spark, and it is because of this that the modern Science of Judaism must be traced back to the roots of German criticism in general. On the other hand, and in equal measure, it is no mere coincidence that it is precisely in those areas of human endeavor in which the German spirit shows its noblest development, namely in the poetic and in the musical [original text illegible] that [original text illegible]. It is simply the case that a profound fusion of these two elements, kindred spirits by birth, has taken place. It almost seemed as though the spirit dwelling in the German Israelites was awaiting release from a spell, in order to immediately merge with the kindred German spirit, to fuse with it. There is no other example in our entire history, not even in Spain. A spiritual fusion of the two elements, one comparable to that which has taken place in Germany for nearly a century and a half, did not occur there. Of course, it would far exceed the bounds of a newspaper article to explore this thought in greater detail. Let this allusion therefore suffice. Excepting all of the noise coming from a large number of anti-Semitic heroes of the day, it is and remains an indisputable truth of the psychology of nations that German and Jewish ways of thinking and feeling are related on the deepest level. Who knows whether the true reason behind the antipathy may not be found in this very abundance of commonalities. Perhaps the law of repulsion governing like poles also holds true in the moral world.

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